Shelved It #6 – Shiness: The Lightning Kingdom

More Info from Enigami

  • Genre: ARPG
  • Platform: PC
  • Also Available On: PS4, Xbox One
  • Main Reason for Shelving: Questionable combat system decisions

I’m starting this one off with a screenshot, because it immediately gets into my theme here of wasted potential.  This scene is the first thing you see when you take control of the game, and the scenery you see continues to be at this level of quality.  This is a phenomenally beautiful game with good music, a good cast of characters, and an enjoyable, if simple story.  When the combat works, it’s also a ton of fun, with great pace, decent combos, and a nice mix of melee and ranged abilities.  However, as the game ramps up the difficulty, the combat very quickly goes from extremely fun to occasionally unfair to downright bad, and it’s really a consequence of one main issue; bad resource generation.

I guess first to set the stage, a bit about how the battle system actually works.  Base melee attacks are comprised of kicks and punches, which can be comboed together.  Ranged attacks are comprised of four sets of elemental attacks that use individual element-based resources.  For avoidance, the player can dodge or parry.  Parry uses the Tension resource, while dodge does not, which is a somewhat strange decision from a high level point of view, but makes sense in practice given how ineffective dodging is against melee attacks.  Finally, Tension can also be used to throw a set of more powerful combo moves, or stored to throw what is effectively an ultimate power move.

So then, let’s start with magic generation since it’s the less frustrating of the two.  While fighting in an arena, there’s a color-coded barrier that periodically changes.  By standing still, you can activate a recharge.  The element color that matches the barrier quickly recharges, while the non-matching elements recharge excruciatingly slow.  This presents two main problems.  For one, you have to stand still.  In a combat system that is heavily based around quick combos and high action, this means that you have to be at high range to even think about recharging.  It also means that characters have to be built for all elements in mind, as fights that don’t cycle between the elemental colors you want effectively negate the use of those elements.  While yes, non-matching elements recharge, it’s so slow as to be impractical in practice.

Unfortunately, Tension is an even worse resource.  It gets generated through melee attacks, but typically requires three or so hits to generate one bar of tension.  Unfortunately, this also puts you in range of enemy melee attacks, which means you’ll be in melee range of enemies, requiring heavy use of parry to avoid damage.  Unfortunately parry itself requires a full bar of Tension.  Generally speaking you can expect an enemy to start a melee chain sooner than you can get in three hits, so you end up generally just having to eat massive amounts of damage.  This is compounded by the fact that stronger enemies tend to have some form of stun lock-style maneuver with little to no tell, so you’re hoping that the moves you decide to parry vs. the moves you decide to eat damage end up being the right choice.  Worst of all, a successful parry does not give any Tension back, so you can very quickly run dry if you have to dodge two or three hits in a row by the enemy.  Changing this alone to give Tension for a successful parry could have saved the battle system, giving an advantage for well timed dodges through the system.

This is compounded by poor choices in the combo maneuvers.  Standard combos tend to only use one or two bars of Tension, but also tend to be short range and missable, so the price of using one is more than just the loss of a potential parry.  There is also then a super move which uses the entire tension bar, but can easily be interrupted by the enemies you’re facing.  When the super move is typically a 5 button chain, it’s simply not worth the price of admission to use them and lose all Tension for potentially no gain.  In general, I ended up avoiding use of the combo moves altogether, because they simply were not worth losing the resource that I could be using to parry and avoid taking more damage, particularly when one missed parry could be a 100-0 death chain.

The unfortunate thing is that a handful of changes could have been done to establish the quick pace while making things actually fair and challenging, rather than unforgiving.   Outside of the stun locks, enemies just were not challenging, so it felt like all challenge was put into catastrophically fucking the player over.  The stun locks should have been outright removed.  They’re just not fun, especially when a single miss can be a 100-0 situation.  Ideally parry should not be on a shared resource with combo moves, and realistically should not be a on a resource at all.  Even if it had its own resource, generating that for a successful parry would encourage well timed moves there instead of button spam.  With parry in a better place, and the 100-0 stun locks removed, the enemies could then have their overall difficulty adjusted up to make the skill of the fights all about constantly timing parry properly, rather than a guessing game of when you were about to be screwed the most.

I suppose I’ll close with an example here that basically killed the game for me.  The second real main boss that you hit is a multi-stage battle against some mobs, then a sub-boss, then a main boss controlling said sub-boss.  In between rounds of killing and reviving the sub-boss, the main guy would throw an orb of magic at me, which could be parried back to deal damage.  It was 100% the Ganon baseball fight from Ocarina of Time.  Unfortunately, it also meant that I needed tension to win, and the amount I needed inherently ramped up each time I hit the main boss.  Because I needed Tension, I had to eat damage, but mechanics started ramping up to include floor traps that slowed my movement and attacks, AoE magic, sub-boss throwing magic spells, etc.  In general it became more of a fight where I was dodging constantly until the opportunity for one or two hits arrived, while minimizing the damage I was taking as much as possible.  Sure I used healing spells and healing items to survive, but quite frankly the fight was just a chore.

The developer has shown some willingness to respond to feedback, so I’m hoping some things can be changed to ultimately rescue the game, but the things I suspect need changing may be too core to really do too much here.  The unfortunate result there is a lot of wasted potential.   This is the type of high quality ARPG that you usually don’t see from a small developer, because quite frankly they’re hard to make enough content for in a reasonable time.  Unfortunately a few highly questionable decisions in the combat mechanics ultimately ground this game, and prevent it from really reaching the potential it shows.

Shelved It #5 – Akiba’s Beat

More information from XSEED/Acquire

  • Genre: ARPG
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: Vita
  • Main Reason for Shelving: No reward grind

TL;DR

  • Lots of unnecessary re-traversal of dungeons for no reward
  • Gameplay is a lot different than previous title; Akiba’s Trip
    • Despite differences, solid ARPG gameplay reminiscent of the Tales of series.
  • Simple, but solid visual style with distinct dungeon designs

As the first RPG that Acquire has made, Akiba’s Beat is pulling ideas from other series in an attempt to provide some familiar gameplay, but in doing so it stumbled in the thing that can determine the quality of a lot of ARPGs and JRPGs; the grind between main story points.  While this one shows a lot of potential for the studio to continue doing RPGs in the future, it just didn’t provide enough incentive to continue through to the end with so many other quality RPGs available.

For anyone that has played Akiba’s Trip, the most obvious difference here is the gameplay.  Rather than being an action-heavy game reminiscent of a light-hearted Musou game, this is now very much a Tales of style ARPG.  The battle system is solid, but definitely not doing anything original.  Battles take place in a flat plane where the player moves side to side toward a targeted enemy, activating physical attack combos and skill attacks.  They can dodge in any direction, and unlock movement from the side to side movement to reposition in 3D space.  Yep, it’s pretty much a 1:1 copy of the battle system used in games like Tales of Vesperia, rather than the more free form systems in newer titles.  It even brings in the AI tactics system to set the skill type, resource usage, and target priority of the Tails games.  The fortunate thing is that this battle system still is extremely fun to play, and while fighting level appropriate monsters, is easily the high point of the game.

The 1:1 copy syndrome also extends to the story.  The core story revolves around Akihabara being stuck in an endless Sunday loop (hello Groundhog Day) in which people’s delusions manifest in Akiba, causing shenanigans to occur (hello Persona 5).  The main problem is that the story and characters just aren’t as good as Persona 5.  The core cast are basically rigid anime tropes, covering things like overly happy idols, brooding NEETS, the always positive athletic girl, etc.  The plot twists are telegraphed too hard, and the consequences of the cast’s actions are sort of brushed aside out of necessity.  In general, the story works, but it’s not going to blow anyone away, particularly when it’s to some extent copying a phenomenally good game that literally just came out.

The unfortunate thing is that the story ended up being the main drag factor on progression.  I put no reward grind as the shelving reason, but I don’t mean that in the typical JRPG fashion.  I wasn’t grinding to get levels, because typically I was around a pretty appropriate level for the things I was fighting.  As the story progressed, they forced you to retraverse the past dungeons repeatedly, typically all the way to the end room.  However, XP gained scales significantly down as the level gap between the monsters and cast increased, so retraversing the dungeons ended up being more of an exercise of how many battles I could avoid, rather than continuing to push the entertaining battle system.  This could have been fixed in any number of ways, whether allowing quick travel to story points, or even scaling up enemies to give players incentive to continue to fight in the dungeons they’ve already been in.  In the end, the story forcing retraversal was the game’s downfall, as it provided a lot of slow down and no reward.

That said, the dungeon visual designs were another high point in the game.  Like Persona 5, they took the concept of a person’s delusions quite literally, heavily theming the dungeon visuals around the person’s personality.  They were always visually pleasing, and really hit a high mark for playing with bright colors and strong designs.  Just for a quick couple of examples:

When the owner of the delusion was a cafe maid, the entire delusion was a twisted interpretation of what a maid cafe would look like.

For the audio hardware guy’s delusion, we got speakers, vacuum tubes, and visual equalizer’s in the skybox to fit the theme.

In general, Akiba’s Beat is a game that doesn’t necessarily do a lot of things that wrong, and isn’t that far from being a highly enjoyable game.  The things it does right, visually and gameplay-wise, it really hits high marks for.  Unfortunately, this is still an RPG, and the story failings immediately bring it down to the status of not worth finishing.  Given Acquire’s past experience with action games (Tenchu, Way of the Samurai, Akiba’s Trip), the change to a more formal RPG structure definitely seems to have tripped them up a bit, but if they take the right lessons from what went wrong here, they may be on to something with the genre change in the future.

Game Ramblings #37 – Mass Effect: Andromeda

More Info from EA

  • Genre: ARPG/Third Person Shooter
  • Platform: PS4
  • Also Available On: PC (Origin), Xbox One

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought the original Mass Effect trilogy was not as good as most people thought it was.  While I definitely enjoyed the games, they always struck me as being solid, but not overwhelmingly good ARPGs.  Their combat was always the high point for me, but I never considered it up there with the quality of a typical Bioware title, let alone even being their best sci-fi series.  With that being said, you can expect that I came into this with a lot lower expectations than a lot of the general internet public, and I suspect my impressions of Andromeda will also follow that.

It’s somewhat appropriate that this is the first Mass Effect that the newer Montreal team is working on, as in a lot of ways, this game follows a similar pattern to the original Mass Effect.  It’s very distinctly a start to something bigger that will be established in future titles.  The story starts to establish a lot of starting threads, but only hints at the larger problems that future games will definitely establish.  The gameplay has also leaned back toward the original, with a lot more emphasis on exploration of open environments while travelling around in a vehicle, rather than the more structured linear levels that the later games started to head towards.  At the same time, it shows a lot of rough edges like the original that I can only assume will be worked out as the team gets their feet under them on titles of such large scope.  So, in the end is the game actually good?

The core combat is definitely a high point here.  The core of the combat is still there from the original trilogy, with the core third-person shooter elements backed up by the use of biotic and tech-based powers.  Like the originals, the skills are earned and powered up via skill points given when leveling up.  Where I think things start to depart is that the Montreal team has leaned even heavier into the action elements that the first game sometimes had a tendency to avoid.

There’s no longer options at all to pause and aim mid-combat, so there is significantly less time spent in menus queuing up skills.  These are now loaded into profiles that can be hot-swapped, allowing you to setup a number of preset configurations based on what style of loadout you need.  It also felt like there was a much larger emphasis on dodge and cover mechanics, with enemies flanking me within encounters, leading me to jump between cover on the fly as I was picking off enemy targets.

Especially important is that the guns feel fantastic.   The weapons I used felt like they were appropriately powerful, with steady but manageable amounts of recoil, stat-modifiable accuracy, and obvious power.  I largely did a soldier main-class build, so most of my upgrades were in supporting weapon damage and my own defense stats, so my main emphasis wasn’t on heavy use of skills, but in finding weapons that I was able to quickly and efficiently remove targets from the encounters.  While I ended up finding a handful of favorite weapon types that I was most comfortable with, each weapon category had a large variety of individual types.  For example, assault rifles had anything from high rate of fire pray and spray weapons, to small magazine burst fire, to single-shot pseudo rifles.  This variety extended through the other types as well, so I’d imagine it would be hard to not find some weapons you like, whether you want to use sniper rifles to pick off enemies from a distance, or shotguns to get up close for big damage.  Also worth noting is that you can hybridize a lot of weapons through mods, adding anything from scopes to stabilizers to bring aspects of your favorites to other weapons.

Where things really started to lose their shine was when I was out of combat.  While the core lore surrounding the Andromeda galaxy was interesting, the individual character interactions ranged from simply being decent to being downright bad.  The voice acting in general was all over the place, with a lot of the larger moments accentuated by lifeless voiceovers.  It’s also worth noting that the larger internet complaints about the facial animations are pretty accurate.  I’m not going to fault the team that much for going with a more procedural-based animation system given the scope of the game, but it’s pretty clear the system could have used some more time cooking.  It also didn’t help them that Frostbite games in general have never handled facial animation that well (seriously, take a look at Mirror’s Edge Catalyst), and you can really see the weakness of the engine in trying to handle heavily story-based content.

The lack of polish also extends to the UI.  There’s a number of places where the UI flow just did not work well at all.  Crafting was generally a chore, having to first learn recipes, then back out to a different screen to craft them.  Comparing items within the inventory was a crap shoot at best.  The scanning of worlds within the galaxy map was an extremely slow process, despite the inclusion of a cutscene skip button within the last patch.  This is on top of the fact that pretty much any of the game’s soft locks that I ran into happened because the UI would get into a bad state and block input into other areas.  I’ve heard from more than one developer that this is not an uncommon problem with Frostbite, so again this goes back to an unfortunate situation where the engine seems to not really be ready for this kind of large scale single-player experience.

In the end my opinion of Andromeda is really not much different than my opinion of the original trilogy.  Without a doubt this game has some rough edges, and definitely should have had another 3-6 months to clean some things up.  That said, I absolutely enjoyed the experience, and got 50 hours out of it before hitting the end of the game.  If there’s anything that I think is unfortunate about the situation, it’s that the team was probably stuck between a rock and a hard place here.  EA very likely mandated release in March to beat the end of their fiscal year.  They also definitely mandated the use of Frostbite 3 over UE3 or UE4, so there was a complete loss of knowledge of the toolset used to make the original trilogy.

Hopefully by the time Andromeda 2 comes out, development will be a bit cleaner, but at least for now we’re starting off in a place where things can grow into something great.  If nothing else, they can lean on the combat systems they’ve built and go from there.